Eira Tansey

The long game of slow violence

The other night I did the one thing before bed you are DEFINITELY NOT SUPPOSED TO DO which was to watch a terrifying news clip:

I had been off the grid a couple weeks ago when the original editorial ran in the Washington Post. The News Hour guest and editorial writer is a Department of Interior employee named Joel Clement, who was working at a high level with Alaskan Native villages on adaptation issues, and was reassigned by his supervisors to an office that collected oil and gas royalties. He believes this was retaliation against his climate adaptation work, and filed whistleblower complaints. The PBS News Hour reporter asked Clement what we were all thinking: “Don’t you think it’s a little ironic you’re now in an office receiving fossil fuel payments when your previous work was exacerbated by the use of fossil fuels in the first place?”

One of the major things that has always horrified me in addition to the unfettered racism, misogyny, bigotry, and incompetence of Donald Trump, was that I do not trust this man to protect the safety of the people who live here on the most minimal public safety measures. One of the examples I pointed to was Trump’s castigation of fire department officials for enforcing fire safety limits at his rallies. A man that would disregard the safety of his own supporters by trying to bully his way out of fire safety codes was the clearest sign to me that this guy transgressed all normal definitions of sinister, that he was a fucking madman, that the potential body count of Americans on his watch – even those on his side – did not factor in to his outlook.

From disregarding fire safety codes – one of the most important public health measures that keep people alive – it’s not a far leap to shrugging off loss of health care for millions of Americans – another public health measure that keeps people alive. Millions losing their health care would result in many preventable deaths. We know this. Everyone knows this. Stop pretending anyone doesn’t understand this. Anyone who claims cuts to healthcare won’t result in thousands of preventable deaths is getting a paycheck that would frame a GoFundMe for chemo as the ultimate expression of liberty. Today we’re at the point where knowingly putting one’s supporters into a position where they may die is the standard operating principle not just of Donald Trump, but the entire Republican Party.

Republican leadership and Trump can claim until they’re blue in the face that of course they don’t want people to die, and basically folks, you know the drill from here: what terribly offensive liberal paranoia! How dare you claim that the Republican Party is seemingly okay with letting folks die in the streets, this is just more evidence that leftists are the real fascists! This is where looking at the concept of slow violence is critical. Slow violence means reconceiving of the speed at which violence is inflicted, particularly violence that may not register right away or is less visible than, say, a terrorist attack. In the words of author Rob Nixon:

We are accustomed to conceiving violence as immediate and explosive, erupting into instant, concentrated visibility. But we need to revisit our assumptions and consider the relative invisibility of slow violence. I mean a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries. I want, then, to complicate conventional perceptions of violence as a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is focused around an event, bounded by time, and aimed at a specific body or bodies. Emphasizing the temporal dispersion of slow violence can change the way we perceive and respond to a variety of social crises, like domestic abuse or post-traumatic stress, but it is particularly pertinent to the strategic challenges of environmental calamities.

So sure, if the GOP ultimately succeeds in repealing the ACA, bodies won’t be dropping in the streets overnight. But by associating violence with the short-term and the visible, we let those who would let people die in the long-term disassociate themselves from any form of violence and long-term accountability. And here is the problem: these assholes are really fucking good at playing the long game.

Where playing the long game with slow violence gets really scary, like, planetary-millenia level scary, is climate change. To state the facts in case anyone has missed Al Gore 1.0 or 2.0, climate change is real, climate change is primarily caused by consumption of fossil fuels, climate change is already wreaking havoc on plant and animal systems and the people who depend on these resources, and the folks who have contributed the least emissions historically speaking are the ones poised to suffer the most. Slow violence is sort of the defining experience of climate change – if you’re honest with yourself, the warning signs are everywhere around you, particularly if you live near a pole or near a coast. But because there isn’t a stark “before” and “after” timeline, climate change manifests itself as a slow violence, aided and abetted by those who benefit from fossil fuel extraction.

Upton Sinclair once said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” And of course, this is the only logical explanation for why the right-wing is committed to not just inaction on climate change, but doubling down on fossil fuel extraction and shifting from denial of climate change’s human basis to handwaving away the effects under the guise of “well, if it’s really happening, we’ll figure it out! Or build a colony on another planet!”

For those of you who aren’t up on your climate change policy definitions, what you’ll often hear are two words – mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is about reducing the use of fossil fuels, adaptation is about building infrastructure and creating policy to help people deal with the inevitable effects of climate change – a certain level of environmental disruption which is already assured, even if we dramatically reduced our fossil fuel consumption immediately. For many people – myself included – these aren’t two opposing paths but joint paths we need to quickly make progress on.

When Trump took office, I was prepared for and expecting that he would go after mitigation efforts – especially the Obama administration Clean Power Plan and Waters rule, and the Paris Agreement. Capitalists gonna capitalist, and these fuckers worship money more than they value the survival of their children. However, I must admit I was not really prepared for the idea that adaptation efforts are now a target. Adaptation efforts don’t really register in the national conversations the brainwashed GOP has on climate change – because how can you adapt to something if you deny the problem’s existence in the first place?

Recall that one of the major objections of the Republican Party to the Paris Agreement was their opposition to contributing money to international adaptation efforts – money that would assist Pacific Island nations who are quite literally threatened by drowning. They are open and upfront about this, as you can see from this Heritage Foundation quote:

One step that Congress should take is to refuse to authorize or appropriate any funds to implement the Agreement, including the tens of billions of American taxpayer dollars in adaptation funding to which the U.S. will commit itself annually.

On the domestic front, a major thing adaptation efforts have going for them is the requirement of serious infrastructure upgrades. Ah, infrastructure! One of those things that always sounds good on paper, but no Republican can seem to find the moral courage to actually fund. Infrastructure is like cute babies, extremely useful during campaign season, but coming in with a lifetime budget for care that no one really wants to fund 100%. Add to the fact that many of the US communities on the frontlines of climate change are Native communities, and this becomes not just a matter of budgetary kicking the can down the road, but yet another example of blatant environmental racism.

Right now, domestic climate change adaptation efforts across the federal government are fragmented, and unlike many European countries, the US does not have a national adaptation strategy (and even before Trump was elected, the federal government admitted it was unable to support total relocation of endangered communities). Much of this is because so much responsibility for planning and infrastructure decisions are at the state and local levels. But a lot of it is because no one really forced the federal government to think about what adaptation efforts should look like until the Obama administration required every federal agency to incorporate adaptation efforts into their climate change response plans – requirements which Trump’s administration has begun to rollback (Text of Trump’s EO here).

When I watched that clip above, I realized that this administration’s indifference to climate change isn’t just surface-level, it isn’t just photo ops exploiting coal miners as we pull out of the Paris agreement, it isn’t just denial that allows the Republican Party leadership to keep chowing down at the fossil fuel capitalism trough, and it isn’t just attacks on Pacific Island nations’ adaptation efforts. It goes very, very, disturbingly and systematically deep to parts of our government the vast majority of us – even people tuned in to climate change policy – can’t comprehend.

To attack domestic adaptation efforts transcends even the normal expectations one would have of American capitalist climate change denialism. One can see how adaptation can actually be embraced fairly cynically to serve fossil fuel interests – “well, maybe the sea will rise, but we don’t have to reduce our extraction as long as we build a giant sea wall one day!”

Instead, attacking adaptation efforts is from the same slow violence playbook as attacking people’s healthcare: we know that this will result in deaths. And the Republican Party is going down this path anyway, fully aware of the consequences, not giving a damn. The long game of slow violence may teach discipline and persistence, but it is based in the purest forms of evil ever wrought upon the world.


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